What Your Teacher REALLY Wants for Christmas This Year

grinch-620x422I don’t want any gifts for Christmas.

(From my students, I mean. Husband dear? You have my list.)

I don’t want a mug that says, “World’s Best Teacher”, or a gift certificate to Starbucks, or even (gasp) a bottle of wine.
I know these things are purchased with the Christmas spirit in mind but, in my humble opinion, they neither necessary nor needed.

Teaching is my job and I get paid for it. I don’t need a gift for doing my job.

That doesn’t mean I don’t want something for Christmas. It’s just that you can’t buy it at the mall.

Here’s what I wish was under my tree this Christmas:

1. From: The general public – Respect. Teaching is one of those jobs that everyone has an opinion on because once upon a time they went to school and they saw how things were done and they know how things could be better. Everyone, from Joey at the grocery store to Bill Gates at Microsoft, thinks they know better than teachers (who have both the education and the experience).

2. From: My administrators – Respect. I know what I’m doing. Help me do it by supporting me, standing by me, and guiding me when I get off track. If I have your support, I can do anything.

3. From: My fellow teachers – Respect. We are all in this together. Let’s share our ideas, our plans. The more we work together, the better things will be for our students. It takes a village to raise a child and we are the villagers.

4. From: Parents – Respect. I want your child to succeed. Sometimes your child may not like me very much and that’s OK. I’m not here to be your child’s best friend. My job is to help them to learn and to leave my classroom better educated than they were when they came in. But I can’t do it alone. I need your support. If your child comes home and says, “My teacher hates me” ask why he thinks that. Call me. E-mail. Talk to me about how we can work together to make things better for your child. Don’t immediately jump into Mama Bear mode and call the school demanding that my head be served on a platter.

5. From: Students – Respect. Listen carefully, please. Cell phones down. Eyes up front. I want you to succeed. The only reason I come to school everyday is because of you. I am always thinking about ways to help you, ways to engage you through interesting and relevant lessons plans. I want what’s best for you. If you got a 65% on your report card, it is not because I hate you. It’s because that is the mark you earned this term. And I promise you, I will do everything I can to help you improve. But I need your cooperation. I can’t do it alone. It’s like the old expression, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink.” I can walk you down to the water, but unless you put your head in and drink, you are always going to be thirsty.

6. From: Myself – Respect. This one is the hardest. Most teachers are extremely empathetic creatures. We care deeply about our students. It’s what makes us get up in the morning. But it’s also our downfall. When we read articles that describe teachers as lazy and greedy, it hurts. When parents jump to conclusions and attack us for trying to help their child, it hurts. When a student you’ve been bending over backwards trying to help, turns on you, it hurts. You start to doubt yourself and your choices. And then everyone suffers.

So, for Christmas this year, I want to give all of my fellow teachers (including myself) the gift of respect.

Believe in yourself.

You got this. believe in yourself

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Mentor Me


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“When did WE become the old ones?” my friend and fellow teacher asked me the other day.

It was a conversation we have had a few times.

We know that ‘technically’ we aren’t exactly old, but professionally we are now the ones with experience on our side. More and more we are finding that younger, less experienced staff are coming to us for advice. We are now expected to mentor, rather than be mentored.

I’ve been thinking a lot about mentors and their importance lately.

My mentor, Mary Murray, died last week. Mary was larger than life and like most people who are larger than life, we all thought she would live forever. She was 78 and she crammed more living into her one lifetime than most people could do in a dozen.

As I read her obituary it occurred to me that she was MY age now when I first met her almost 30 years ago.

I met Mary when I was 18 years old. She hired me to work as a pseudo camp counsellor at an intensive English language immersion program (ELP) for the summer. I had no idea what I was getting myself in for and it seemed, neither did she.

I was, to say the least, not a model employee.

I had no idea what I was doing. I had never even been to camp, much less worked at one. I didn’t understand the 24-hours a day-7 days a week-6 weeks in a row, on-duty all the time culture. I had never lived away from home before and my only other job had been working as a cashier at the mall.

Those first few weeks were miserable.

I missed my family, my friends, my bed, and my dog. I had never shared a room with anyone and suddenly I was in a tiny dorm room with a girl who seemed to know exactly what to do and when to do it.

I remember the first (of many) sing-songs I attended. Singing was like breathing at ELP – it was done regularly and with vigor. I was handed a tambourine and a songbook and told to sing along in front of 300 or so English second language students from around the world.

I looked at that tambourine and I looked at the staff who were singing along like we were at some bizarre version of Woodstock and I thought, “Oh.my.god.This place is frickin’ nuts.”

Why I wasn’t fired in week one is still a mystery to me.

But I wasn’t. And I didn’t quit either. I stuck it out and slowly I started to understand how this strange new world operated. My roommate, Colleen, took me under her wing and helped me to see the fun side of the job.

And Mary stood by me. She advised me, counselled me, and cheered me on. She gently scolded me when I needed it and I needed it often. Not that she really had to scold me. Just catching a raise of her eyebrow was enough to make me want to do better, to be better.

I survived that first summer (barely) and came out of it with my eyes, my mind and my heart opened wider than they had ever been before. (I was also 20 lbs. heavier, but that’s a different story. Turns out I wasn’t “naturally” skinny after all and that cafeteria food was not my friend.)

The next summer I vowed that I wasn’t going back. I moved out west and lived with my parents, but I quickly realized I wanted to go back. I couldn’t have explained why. I just knew I missed it.

After the first month, I called Mary and asked if she thought there were any jobs she thought I could do.

No hesitation. No warnings that things had to be better this time around.

She just said enthusiastically (as she said everything), “Of course! I’d love to have you back!”

She gave me a job in the office where I discovered that I loved managing the paperwork and organizing events. I didn’t know that this would be my strength, but Mary did. She knew that I would be good at it if she gave me the chance. Once again, she helped me, guided me, and nudged me along.

A few years later, after I graduated with my Arts degree, I got married and moved away. I thought I had left that part of my life behind. But life is life and eventually I was back and looking for a job. Once again, Mary said, “Wonderful! I know what you can do” and she offered me a job teaching grammar.

Grammar. Really? But Mary knew me and she trusted that I could do it. And she was right. It was perfect for me. It wasn’t a difficult class to teach (very structured and organized…just the way I like things) and it gave me as chance to see if I actually enjoyed teaching.

And I did. After teaching ESL, I decided to go back to university and get my Education degree. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But Mary was never history for me.

Even though I rarely saw her again after those summers, I never forgot her. Her words and lessons echoed in my ears as I moved throughout my teaching career.

I sent her a Christmas card every year and always tried to include a little note about something I did in my teaching or with my children that year that I could credit back to her.

Mary was a natural mentor. At her funeral and the reception that followed, I met person after person who talked about how Mary had guided them, helped them, mentored them.  She never wanted to create Mini-Marys. Instead, she wanted all of us to be the best we could be. She helped us to find our gifts. She saw our strengths and nurtured them until we were ready to fly on our own.

I know I’ll never be a mentor like Mary, but that’s OK. She wouldn’t want me to be. I know she would want me to be the best ME I can be and to help guide and mentor the next generation of teachers and leaders to be the best they can be.

I’ll do my best, Mary.

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“Mentoring is to support and encourage people to manage their own learning in order that they may maximise their potential, develop their skills, improve their performance and become the person they want to be.” Eric Parsloe, The Oxford School of Coaching & Mentoring

 

 

 

 

Mental Illness is Not a Choice – A Reminder for Educators

The following is a message I received from a reader who asked me to share.  It is so important as educators that we understand and are compassionate towards children and youth who have mental health issues. Parents and  teachers working together = happier, healthier kids.

Dear fellow educators who need this reminder,

Mental health issues are not like colds or the flu. Those attempting resilience may be overcome at nine, feeling reasonably able to fake it at noon, and done in again at four. Thus, you may not see them in class, while they are crying in guidance, but you may see them “laughing it up with friends at lunch.”

Here’s how it works, in case you missed the class in psych or any of the wellness events held at your school, or haven’t touched base with the other teachers who are amazing and helpful. Depressed kids may have two good days and a bad week and then complete an opera or go back to bed for three weeks. This is not evasion. This is not a choice.

If you also suffer and manage to force yourself to go to work, good for you. If I were your mom, or your union rep, I’d tell you to take better care of yourself. It’s not ok to pretend to be compassionate and understanding while actually judging and valorizing martyrdom, denial, and workaholism. If you don’t want to help, don’t, but don’t pretend you do and then not. It confuses the kids and confusion makes it all much worse because they blame themselves.

Sincerely,

A Concerned Parent

Newsflash: Girls Are Not Distractions

The school dress code issue has reared its ugly head once again and everyone is acting like this is a brand-new problem.

Seriously? Every generation of adults since the beginning of time has felt that the younger generation dresses inappropriately.

Those kids are too sexual! Too sloppy! Just plain disrespectful!

(Photo: US magazine)

(Madonna – the queen of wearing underwear as outerwear. Photo: US magazine)

The problem now is that we are supposed to have evolved. As a society, we are supposed to understand that girls are not objects and boys are not weak-willed lust-machines controlled by their hormones.

We need to give our children some credit.

Saying that girls need to watch the way they dress because they could distract the boys is insulting to both boys and girls. And it’s sexist. Honestly, I spent most of my school years distracted by boys. And they weren’t scantily dressed boys. Just boys. Cute boys. Funny boys. Bad boys. It’s a wonder I graduated.

In the midst of the debate surrounding “appropriate” dress for students, we have forgotten one important factor – the students themselves.

Feeling like you belong somewhere is a basic human need. Children and teens spend most of their waking hours in school, so it makes sense that they would want to feel like they belonged to their peer group.

Quick. What’s an easy way to feel like you belong to a group?

Dress like the group.

You may not the smartest or the best athlete or the most talented musician, but when you are dressed like your peers, at least you belong to the group in one way.

Some of our dress code rules are so outdated that they were in place when I was in high school.

For example, take the finger-tip rule (please…take it.)

I did some research (ie. I went shopping at the mall) and discovered that it is damn near impossible to find shorts that meet the “fingertip rule”. Most of my shorts (and keep in mind that I am OLD) don’t meet the fingertip rule.

TAYLOR SWIFT in Short Shorts

Yes, school is for learning all about math and reading and writing, but it’s also for learning how to maneuver social situations and for figuring out where you fit in the world. Middle-school kids tend to want to blend in with each other. If you have to wear shorts that are so long your mini-van driving mom wouldn’t wear them, then you are probably not going to feel good about yourself. Unless every other girl in the school is wearing the same dowdy looking shorts, you will probably feel like you are out of the loop.

Another part of the problem is that the rules are generally not enforced equally across the board. What ends up happening instead is that some girls are targeted and told that their outfits are inappropriate, while others sashay by without nary a word said. One day, I watched as a 12-year-old girl had her skirt inspected by a teacher and the principal, in the middle of the hall during the lunch hour.

While she stood there, mortified, a half-dozen girls walked by in similar outfits and none of them were called to task for breaking the dress code. This girl just happened to have a teacher who felt that since the rule was in place, it was her job to enforce it. The girl being called out for her short skirt was also pretty. (And we all know pretty girls distract the boys…so, stop it…stop being so pretty, pretty girls.) I don’t blame her teacher. She was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t. (And don’t even get me started on the male teachers. If they say something, they can be accused of leering at the young girls and if they don’t, they are accused of ignoring the “problem”.)

Girls who develop more quickly than their peers often get dinged with the dress code, too. They may be wearing the same the shirt and skirt set as their peers and yet because they look like curvy young women, they are told their outfit is inappropriate.

I am (generally) a rule follower. If the rule of the school is that your shorts should be a certain length and your belly button shouldn’t show and your underwear should stay under your clothes, then I think the rules should be enforced  for everyone OR the rules should be changed.

In this case, the rules need to be changed.

We are trying to implement 80’s rules in the 21st century and our 21st century kids want nothing of it. They know fashion trends before they hit the newstand and they want to try them out.

Parents can decide if their child’s outfit is appropriate. And yes, some kids will rebel and change their clothes without their parents knowing. That’s part of growing up.  (True story: At my high school, there was a group of Pentecostal girls who would come to school every day in their long jean skirts and their buttoned-up blouses and immediately go into the bathroom and change into skin-tight jeans and t-shirts. Teens will rebel and the sun will set in the west.)

I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know a few things for sure:

1. As the mother of two teenage boys, I have never had one of them say, “Geez Mom, I could have made an A in math if it wasn’t for that girl in my class wearing those short shorts.” Both have managed to learn and succeed in school, despite the occasional distraction of a girl in short shorts.

2. As a teacher, I have never said to a parent, “Well, Billy would have passed if it wasn’t for that Jessica and that visible bra strap of hers. There goes his chance of getting into law school.”

3. Making girls feel ashamed of their bodies and telling them that they are “distractions” is wrong.  Let’s stop doing that, shall we?

Girls are people too logo 4

Because I’m tired of businessmen telling me how to teach

Money and fame do not automatically make you brilliant and all-knowing.

One would think this would go without saying. And yet…

Why, as a society, are we so quick to follow the “teachings” of the rich and famous?!

Take for example, the idiots people who followed the advice of former Playboy model, now-turned talk show host, Jenny McCarthy and stopped vaccinating their kids. Jenny, going on the advice of a doctor who later turned out to be a liar, said a vaccination caused her son to “catch” autism.  Amazingly, millions of people listened to her. When the doctor was later called out as being a fraud and even Jenny admitted she might have been a little bit wrong, it was too late for all of those little munchkins who missed their annual shots. jenny

Now, personally, I think if you follow medical advice dished out by blondes who strip for money, then you deserve what you get. Unfortunately, these people didn’t get what they deserved…their children did.  And now we have an outbreak of measles sweeping the country. What’s next? Smallpox? Polio? (Oh crap…seriously?)

But I digress.

I’m so tired of people who know nothing about education telling me how I should do my job and how I should be compensated for it.  I mean, really, who knows more about educating children than somebody who has spent their life making money? Someone who probably hasn’t laid eyes on a child he isn’t related to since he went to school. (And yes, I say “he”, because it’s usually the business’men’ who feel they could save public education if people would just listen to all of the great insight and wisdom they have gained while making their money.)

My humble opinion is that these businessmen want schools to pump out good little workers who will keep the economy churning. Whenever you hear one of these successful businessmen slamming education, they always finish with, “If we don’t change things now, we will never be able to compete with those Asian countries who keep beating us on the math assessments!”

None of them ever says, “I hope the children in my country get a well-rounded education that prepares them to be good citizens in their families, their communities and the world.”

Nope. It’s all about keeping the worker-factory churning.

A few months ago, there was an interview in the Atlantic Business Magazine with John Risley, a man who made his fortune in the seafood industry. He’s obviously a brilliant businessman (he’s a self-made billionaire), but it seems his vast wealth has also made him an expert in other areas. In the article, he gave his opinions on everything from politics to education. And he didn’t hold back.

{We} have the worst P-12 education system in the country. That’s not subjective. We have the worst goddamn math scores in the country!” 

(Uh, actually…that IS subjective. It’s the definition of subjective. You can’t call us the “worst” without presenting facts to back it up.)

He goes on to talk about how education could be improved in the province, if the government would just listen to him.

Another businessman with a lot of money thinks everyone should be listening to him as well.  Bill Black, who now has a regular column in the newspaper, made his fortune in the insurance industry.  And despite having no background or training whatsoever in education, he frequently takes to the pages of our local paper to talk about how the education system, and teachers in particular, are completely off track. Of course, he knows how to fix things.

I think everyone is entitled to their opinion, but when it’s presented as expert advice, that’s when I have a problem.

I don’t tend go around shooting my mouth off about how to run an insurance company because I am not an expert on running insurance companies. So, why are these men being given mountains of white space in our local papers to talk about things they know nothing about? Just because someone is an expert in one area doesn’t given them knowledge or expertise in another.

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The leader of this movement of businessmen who think they can fix the world is Bill Gates.

I get it. He’s a genius in the field of technology and an expert in marketing and money-making.

But does he have a background in education? Nope. And yet there he is, leading the way for educational reform in the United States. And things aren’t going well.

I leave you with the words of the wise Barb from the Trailer Park Boys telling the dim, shirtless Randy not to interfere in matters he knows nothing about:

“Randy, you know, when I want advice on cheeseburgers or not wearing a shirt, you’re the person I’ll come to.”(Season 2, Episode 7)

So, fellows, if I want advice on how to catch a lobster or run an insurance company or build a multi-billion dollar empire, I’ll call you.

But if I want advice on how to teach? I think I’ll put my money on teachers.

 

 

Opting In vs. Opting Out: Yes, you can have my organs and thank you for asking.

keep-calm-and-donate-life-2I have been a potential organ donor for as long as I can remember. It was a no-brainer for me.

If I’m dead, what possibly use could I have for my heart or my skin or my liver? Even if I end up in heaven, with the harps and fluffy clouds and endless wine and ice cream, what do I need with my earthly body?

And if I end up as worm food, well, they don’t really need my eyes do they?  I even agreed to donate my body to science, although I do want to go with a toe tag that says, “Don’t laugh, you cute little med student. You too will be old some day.”

I have always signed my organ donor cards and when my children were born, I signed them up as organ donors as well. God forbid. That was not a decision I wanted to have to make if the worst possible scenario occurred.

When they were old enough, we discussed it and I let them make the choice. They both agreed that organ donation was a gift they wanted to give.

I have seen the benefits of organ donation and the tragedy that occurs when people don’t get the organs they need in time.

Despite all of this, I disagree with my premier’s proposal that organ donation should involve opting out rather than a choice to opt in. They call it reverse onus legislation. The assumption is that you will donate your organs unless you sign yourself out.

Years ago, my cable company sent me a notice saying that unless I opted out, I would be getting six new (crappy) channels and my bill would go up by $5. The government actually stepped in that time and said opting out was not good business practice. Hmmm…it’s wrong to be charged $5 extra for bad cable, but it’s OK to tell people that their organs will be harvested when they die unless they sign a piece of paper?

I am passionate about organ donation, but I think it has to be a personal decision.

Why?

Because when it’s your body, it’s your choice. I believe every individual has the right to choose. The right to choose when to die and how. The right to choose whether to give birth. The right to choose whether to take medication or refuse it.

As human beings, we are blessed/cursed with free will.

For the government to take that away, seems to me, to be a slippery slope. If we let the government take our organs without our consent, where will it end?

There are people who need kidney transplants or else they will die. I mean, technically, we only need one. It seems a little selfish for us to be walking around with both when other people need them to survive. So, should the government be allowed to sweep people off the streets and take their kidneys?  I think we can all agree that that would be wrong.

Organ donation is incredibly important. People are dying when they could be saved IF more people signed their organ donor cards.

I think schools should introduce the concept of organ donation. Make it a part of basic goodness.

I think there should be bigger and better campaigns for organ donation. A full court press telling people how much good they could do if they just ticked off the box saying they would donate their organs. Show them who gets helped.

We should be working our butts off to convince people to voluntarily donate their organs. But as passionate as I am about organ donation (and seriously, you can take anything you want when I’m dead…seriously…pluck my carcass like a vulture…I don’t care, so long as it helps someone else) I am vehemently opposed to taking away someone else’s right to decide what to do with their own body.

Take my organs…please! And thank you for asking.

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Children should memorize their times tables (and other duh! moments in teaching)

duh

The Globe and Mail’s editorial this weekend praised the governments of Ontario and Alberta for making the memorization of the multiplication tables part of the school curriculum.

And well they should.

As I have mentioned many times in this old blog of mine, I am not a fan of  “homework”; however, when I taught grades 4 and 5, I always sent the kids home with multiplication tables at the beginning of the year. I told them that if they could memorize their facts (up to 9×9) their lives would be sooooo much easier and happier that it would more than make up for the time they spent playing flash cards with mom or being quizzed by dad in the car. Once you know your multiplication facts, you know your division facts. Some kids need to spend extra time committing their addition and subtraction facts to memory (especially subtraction…this is often difficult for kids), but it’s worth it.

Students who don’t have their facts down by late elementary often struggle with all the other math concepts. You may know how to find the area of rectangle, but if you can’t multiply the two numbers that make up length by width quickly and accurately, you aren’t going to be able to solve the problem.

Once you have your basic facts locked away in the big file cabinet in your mind, you can move on to doing actual fun math things, like making graphs about who likes baseball vs. hockey (kids love that stuff) .  If you are still using your fingers to subtract seven from 15, it is going to take you a long time to figure out any multi-step math problems.

Of course I think it’s important for kids to understand what it means to multiply and divide and add and subtract. And, as teachers, we teach that. We start teaching that in pre-school and kindergarten with pictures and songs and hands on materials. Parents teach it every time they give their child an allowence or let them count the change in mom’s change purse.

But for pete’s sake.

6×7 = 42. It did when I was a kid. It did when you were a kid. It does now and it will continue to do so in the future.

No one needs to discover that or figure that out. Thank you. That’s been done. No need to reinvent the wheel.

Now…what is 8×4? 6×3? 5+2?

Go!

math 2Important exception to the rule: Everyone learns differently. With lots of practice and repetition, most kids will be able to memorize their facts. BUT some kids can’t memorize their facts due to problems with their working memory or a learning disability or the fact that they just learn differently. If you have tried and tried and tried to help your child memorize their facts but to no avail and now everyone is miserable and dissolves into tears every time the term ‘math’ is mentioned, invest in a nice slim calculator and teach your child how to work it quickly and accurately. Remediate until remediation has been proven ineffective and then compensate.

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